North­land pas­tor’s fall met with com­pas­sion

The Kansas City Star - - Front Page - BY MATT CAMP­BELL mcamp­[email protected]­

Con­gre­ga­tion mem­bers of the Vine­yard Church in Kansas City’s North­land were ex­pect­ing reg­u­lar wor­ship ser­vices on the week­end be­fore Thanks­giv­ing, but they got trou­bling news in­stead.

The act­ing pres­i­dent of the church’s board and three ex­ec­u­tive pas­tors, sit­ting on stools, an­nounced that beloved se­nior pas­tor Fred Her­ron, who had helped build the church over nearly three decades to the point that it now has four cam­puses and as many as 3,000

wor­shipers each week­end, had gone away.

“Fred is suf­fer­ing from var­i­ous health is­sues, in­clud­ing ad­dic­tion and de­pen­dence is­sues,” the con­gre­ga­tion was told. “The ex­tent of some of these is­sues has only come to light in the last 7 to 10 days, even to his wife, Janet.”

Her­ron, who led so many peo­ple to Christ, was at an un­named treat­ment fa­cil­ity away from Kansas City. The lead­er­ship had placed him on an in­def­i­nite leave of ab­sence be­cause he could no longer do the job as pas­tor.

Her­ron, 57, also had con­fessed “moral fail­ure” to his wife of more than 30 years, who was said to be sur­prised, be­wil­dered and over­whelmed.

“When you serve with some­body for 11 years, you get to know them pretty well,” pas­tor Tony Wilks told the con­gre­ga­tion, his voice break­ing. “But there’s stuff I found out that I had no idea. This has wrecked my world, from the whole as­pect of deal­ing with anger, be­trayal. I’ve wanted to deny it. This can’t be real. And the pain just kind of comes in.”

For the church lead­er­ship, the de­ci­sion to be straight with the mem­ber­ship came nat­u­rally. They even posted video of their 40-minute an­nounce­ment on the church’s web­site and its Face­book page for the world to see.

“The de­ci­sion to be open and hon­est about ev­ery­thing re­ally goes back to our core DNA,” act­ing pres­i­dent Norm Ras­mussen said in an in­ter­view. “Most of the peo­ple that have come to the church have come from a place of bro­ken­ness . ... It was a nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion for us to say we’ve got some­one here that’s walked an (er­rant) path­way and we want to help re­store him.”

Church mem­bers re­acted not with scorn but with com­pas­sion. Scores of com­ments on the Face­book page were uni­ver­sally sup­port­ive.

“Thanks for han­dling this with grace and love, just as Je­sus would want us to,” posted church mem­ber Emily Maasen.

The news came as a sur­prise for most, al­though some peo­ple knew some­thing wasn’t quite right with Her­ron, who started the North­land Vine­yard church with Ras­mussen in 1990. He had trav­eled to Ethiopia and bap­tized hun­dreds of peo­ple in a river ear­lier this year. Maybe that had af­fected his health. It turned out to be some­thing more than that.

“I want to read you a state­ment to­day, as we’ve been watch­ing and pray­ing for Fred over the last sev­eral months,” Ras­mussen told the con­gre­ga­tion. “Dear church fam­ily, do you ever have a time when things are con­fus­ing, an­swers are hard to find and cir­cum­stances way dif­fer­ent than you as­sumed? We are at just such a cross­roads right now.”

The state­ment did not spec­ify the na­ture of Her­ron’s ad­dic­tion and Ras­mussen later de­clined to elab­o­rate, say­ing that “when you’re in Christ, God does not keep a list of all your sins.”

Roger Sod­sod, pas­tor of adult min­istries at the church, spoke for many when he said, “Hu­man be­ings are flawed, we are bro­ken and we make mis­takes.”

Still, he de­scribed his re­ac­tion upon learn­ing of this sit­u­a­tion.

“When I heard this news on Wed­nes­day this past week my heart just broke,” Sod­sod told church mem­bers in the sanc­tu­ary at 12300 N.W. Ar­row­head Traf­ficway. “When Norm was un­pack­ing this to the ex­ec­u­tive team I had to ask him to stop be­cause I felt like I was go­ing to be sick. I’ve had a few days to process this. I still feel hurt and be­trayed, but I still love Fred.”

Vine­yard is an evan­gel­i­cal “mega church” with a mod­ern and ca­sual feel. Wor­ship mu­sic comes with a rock-and-roll flair. It of­fers youth pro­grams as well as classes, games and other ac­tiv­i­ties. They stock a food pantry and this week were box­ing up hol­i­day meals and gifts for the less for­tu­nate.

“We’re not a per­fect church,” said Wilks, “but we are a per­fect church for im­per­fect peo­ple.”

Re­becca Ed­wards, who de­scribed her­self as a quiet church mem­ber for 15 years, wrote on Face­book that she knew “some­thing wasn’t right with Fred.”

But Ha­ley Anise Hart­land said she was al­most speech­less.

“I had no idea he was strug­gling,” she wrote. “I hope he can find some sort of peace from all of this.”

Mary Pulse said she would love and sup­port Her­ron through his heal­ing process, how­ever long it takes. “And we want you back when you are ready,” she posted.

Her­ron is ex­pected to be away from the church for months. Ras­mussen can­not con­tact him while he is in treat­ment, but Her­ron calls in pe­ri­od­i­cally for a few min­utes. He is aware that the con­gre­ga­tion knows the sit­u­a­tion be­cause that’s the church’s process.

“If you can’t find free­dom in church, where can you find it?” Ras­mussen asked. “This has got to be the place where bro­ken peo­ple can come and we can walk it out with them through redemp­tion and into free­dom. We’re com­mit­ted to do that with Fred and we’re com­mit­ted to do it with any­body.”

One con­gre­gant re­port­edly be­came sober after 15 years of al­co­holism, in­spired by the mes­sage he heard from church lead­ers re­gard­ing the se­nior pas­tor.

“This is not a story about a fail­ure,” Ras­mussen said. “It isn’t. It is a story of hope. It is a story of mercy.”

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